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Tracy Letts in Steppenwolf's "Last of the Boys" by Steven Dietz, directed by Rick Snyder. Photo by Michael Brosilow

"Last of the Boys"
Steppenwolf Theatre
1650 North Halsted Sreet
Chicago, Illinois 60614
Closed November 13, 2005
Reviewed by Dorothy Chansky

Failing to win his father's approval is the worst thing a man can suffer. Being abandoned by the husband who stole her teenage heart is it for a woman.

Welcome to the world of "Last of the Boys," Steven Dietz's testosterone-hyped meditation on the import and aftermath of the Vietnam war and era for four troubled present-day Americans. Dietz has big ambitions; he dares to write a ghost returning in military garb to force action from a protagonist who just lost his father. And something is surely rotten in this corner of the state of California, where said grieving son, Ben (Tracey Letts), is drinking beer in a trailer on a spot infected with toxic waste instead of attending his father's funeral.

Ben's blue funk is interrupted by Jeeter (John Judd), a womanizing opportunist who is also Ben's best friend and fellow Vietnam veteran. Jeeter did attend the funeral, but not before picking up a new girlfriend on the way. He rhapsodizes that "she's into grizzled old grunts. I thought I'd died and gone to Bangkok." One-liners and sitcom putdowns are Dietz's contemporizing modes of choice, and director Rick Snyder plays into rather than against the texts obviousness and excesses.

The girlfriend and her mother, both on the lam from responsibility, take turns drawing Ben out in scenes that are contrived to fill in backstory and force revelation. Like the men, these women are haunted by the ghosts of Vietnam, specifically the young soldier who left Lorraine, the mother, a widow who could never hold a job (Amy Morton plays her as a credible hardrinking ex-hippie), and Sal, her daughter (the haunted and haunting Mariann Mayberry), an unemployed freewheeler with a Vietnam-themed tattoo she hides under long sleeves and high necklines.

In the encounters with the ghost (Christopher McLinden), Ben channels Robert McNamara and realizes that the dirty secret shared by his father and the one-time Secretary of Defense was a loss of faith in the war Ben was fighting. (Ann G. Wrightson's lighting makes the ghost scenes both eerie and magical.) Where Ben will go after his catharsis is unclear, but he does finally cry for his father. Sal finds hers (and presumably some peace), leaving the trailer – and Jeeter – to go home with Mom, who remains more or less in limbo.

Not surprisingly, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan figure in the men's personal histories. In one of these characters' many ongoing quests, Jeeter attends Stones concerts to which he carries a hand-painted sign that says "just stop." The sign figured prominently in the junkyard-mit-Coca Cola-machine setting (by Todd Rosenthal). It telegraphed an idea that didn't need to be reinforced in the context of too many shouting matches, too many boozy confessions, and too many heavy-handed symbols. [Chansky]

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